I had little intention to revisit this, Paul WS Anderson’s fifth movie. But I figured, if I was going to complete my inspection of the entire sextet, it might be prudent to refresh my memory of those I’d already called upon. Anderson doesn’t generally engender raves. Far from it. The guy is entirely competent technically, but more often than not has produced pictures of incoherent plasticity, lacking memorable characters, content or dramatic heft. And then there are his auteurish inclinations (he gets a screenplay credit on more than half), entirely unjustified. Resident Evil was Anderson’s second go at a video game adaptation, and we have to give him respect where it’s due; both were successful, and both earned themselves movie franchises. The plaudits should probably end there.
If Anderson scored a palpable hit with Mortal Kombat, he then proceeded into an extreme deficit with muddled gross-out existential sci-fi horror Event Horizon and mega-bomb Soldier, the kind of back-to-back disasters that could end a career. He rebounded with this and retained a producer role on the remainder of the series, stepping in to helm again to boot from four onwards.
Which means his non-Resident Evil movies across the past two decades have definitely been less conspicuous, and also less successful, with the exception of the functional – that’s the best way to describe most of his movies – Alien vs. Predator. Also to be found are the Death Race 2000 remake, an inevitable The Three Musketeers and his stab at James Cameron doomed romance (Pompeii). It should be unsurprising then, that he has shown devotion to Resident Evil, since the last three, on very lean, studio-friendly budgets, have taken a quarter of a billion dollars or more each. Anderson may be no one’s favourite director, but he’s proved very far from the least bankable.
And, given the more miss than hit nature of video game adaptations, simply cranking out something in that loose genre people want to see ought to be recognised as no small achievement. Some of these, influenced as they are by the movies (Alien, George Romero), ought to be no-brainers, but the dearth of character and emotional engagement tends to betray serviceable concepts. You’re much more likely to get a Doom than a ready-to-go sequel vehicle. Perhaps Resident Evil survived partly because Anderson was more than willing to boost belle Milla Jovovich’s action heroine chops throughout – they met on the first one, and romance blossomed, despite his voyeuristic enabling of her exposing as much flesh as possible, snatch shot included – and such continuity can only help a series (it even worked for Underworld, in which Len Wiseman was likewise dedicated to MVP-ing missus Kate Beckinsale).
I’m singularly not conversant in Resident Evil game lore. I’m aware of the MKUltra and predictive programming elements. Of Alice (Alice in Wonderland, although she’s Anderson’s invention), Racoon City (an anagram of corona) and the zombie genre generally feeding an appetite for Pasteurian virus theory and apocalyptic resignation, along with the pervasiveness of DUMBs and corporate malfeasance (the Umbrella Corporation, and its logo; in the games it’s British, founded by royals). Anderson also has white rabbits being injected with the T-Virus. One might speculate who Umbrella could be swapped in for – Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple – but it’s notable that a former figurehead of one of those corporations has been the “trailblazer” for the tool designed to wipe out the human population, or swathes of it (and no, I don’t mean something “leaked” from a lab). Additional notable tropes are memory loss and AI ambivalence (the Red Queen, personified as a creepy child: more MKUltra).
Anderson builds his movie on a mystery; we see the research lab locked down in the opening sequence, with someone (unseen) having intentionally unleashed the T-virus, subsequent to which amnesiac Alice (Jovovich) awakens in a deserted mansion, is captured by Umbrella commandos and led into the facility. It later turns out that Alice was intending to expose Umbrella’s activities, while it was fellow amnesiac Spence (James Purefoy) who unleashed it, planning to sell the virus for a profit. Both were rendered forgetful by the Red Queen’s shutdown protocols. Anderson quickly crosses into suspense mode, with threats from zombie lab technicians and zombie dogs, but the most noticeable aspect is how wanting in tension and atmosphere the proceedings are. David Johnson’s cinematography isn’t on Gary Kibbe levels, but the visuals are surprisingly flat, and the extra work lacks conviction.
Anderson also fails to engender much in the way of compelling lead performances. Jovovich is stern faced, androgynous and limber, convincingly kicking a zombie dog’s head in in slow motion. Michelle Rodriguez brings the attitude as an infected commando, and Purefoy is… reliable. Colin Salmon gets diced, but didn’t we already see that in Cube? Eric Mabius – in a role apparently earmarked for David Boreanaz – is utterly forgettable as male hero Matt, while Jason Isaacs appears briefly behind a mask. Halfway through, a massively crappy massive CGI monster (the Licker) makes its entrance, and any hope for a veneer of verisimilitude is abandoned right there and then. Also not helping the general tone any is the Z-grade soundtrack noise delivered by popular alleged spousal abuser Marilyn Manson, ensuring wall-to-wall ear battering and zero nuance.*
We’re told Umbrella is the world’s leading supplier of computer technology, medical products and healthcare, while its massive profits are generated from military technology, genetic experimentation and viral weaponry. We’re also informed the virus is protean, moving from liquid to airborne to transmission via blood, depending on its environment. Massive corporations scaring the bejesus out of everyone – or attempting to – with their nefarious depopulation agenda should be the read through, then. George Romero fell out of the game adaptation before Anderson became attached, and Cameron has called it a guilty pleasure. High praise indeed. More than Resident Evil deserves.
*Addendum 17/08/22: And, of course, prominent Church of Satan member. But he’s just misunderstood, right?